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Whenever you move to a new country, you have to figure out some surprisingly basic things from scratch. One of the things which often causes a surprise is shopping. Shops are the same pretty much everywhere, right? Well, yes.. in many ways they are, but in a few important areas they can be very, very different.

Germany and Switzerland manage to be very, very different with their approach to shop opening hours. For starters, Sunday as a day of rest is taken extremely seriously here (probably most seriously of all by the shopworkers' unions). By law, shops in Zürich cannot open on Sundays unless they're catering to the needs of travellers, or are things like kiosks and restaurants. You can't go to the supermarket and buy a litre of milk and some teabags. Coming from the UK, where we've had Sunday opening for some time, this is something of a shock. It's an even bigger shock when you find that the shops you thought closed at 7 or 8 actually close at 5pm on Saturdays and you're therefore going to starve until Monday morning unless you go to the station and live entirely on bratwurst from the kiosks on the concourse.

Of course, even closing at 5pm on Saturdays is a fairly new thing. Until not so long ago, shops in Germany were required to close by 2pm on Saturdays, except for one Saturday a month which was known (in hushed, reverent tones) as Langer Samstag - Long Saturday - when they were allowed to open until 6.

The laws have largely eased over the last decade or so. It's worth pointing out that this reverence for the day of rest is unlikely to be religious in origin. Shops were open all hours 7 days a week until the latter part of the 19th century. It's pretty much down to the retail unions. I can't say I blame them entirely - if I was required to lose my Sunday in order to work in a shop every couple of weeks I'd want to stop that too.

So what's the situation now? Well, shops in Zürich close sometime between 6 and 8 on weekdays, and an hour or two earlier on Saturdays. On Sunday, they are closed, closed, closed, and woe betide you if you haven't planned ahead. Okay, they're allowed to open on four Sundays in the year, usually the ones leading up until Christmas (a similiar regime applies in many German länder - although in some they're required even then to be closed during the times when you're supposed to be at church) but, by and large, Sunday means all the shops are closed.

Or are they? There's a loophole in the law - shops catering for travellers' needs are allowed to be open late nights as well as on Sundays. Always recognising a good business opportunity, the Swiss have capitalised on this. Both Zürich's main railway station and Zürich airport contain vast shopping centres open seven days a week, with smaller centres at a number of other railway stations. This neatly solves the Sunday opening problem as travellers are likely to want to buy things at the station and at the airport, and as a court ruling in the past has decided that it's impossible to decide what a traveller might or might not want to buy, you can shop for anything from a ham sandwich to a 10,000-franc watch. One side-effect of this, though, is that everyone else in town will be jammed into the same shopping centre as you, and trying to negotiate your way through the already-cramped aisles of the small supermarket in the shopping centre under the Hauptbahnhof is not for the faint-hearted.

Of course, retailers may trip you up in their own special ways. Switzerland's largest and most famous supermarket chain is Migros. Migros is big in Switzerland. It doesn't just run supermarkets, it runs an entire empire including banking services, mobile phones, and even language schools. Migros sells everything.. except alcohol, due to the puritanical views of its founder, Gottlieb Duttweiler. You can't buy beer at your local Migros. In fact, you can't buy cigarettes or what Wikipedia starchily calls "racy magazines" either, but people who feel the need for the latter two on a Sunday will find everything they want and probably more (much more, given the volume of pornography that takes up the shelves of the average Swiss kiosk) at their local kiosk or petrol station. (To be fair to Migros, it has also historically been an extremely socially-conscious company, having been converted by Duttweiler into a customer-owned cooperative in 1941, and to this day spending 1% of its annual turnover on financing cultural activities. Having seen some of the extremes to which alcohol abuse has gone recently in the UK, I can also see some merit in the view that alcohol is not a socially beneficial thing to sell.)

So if the supermarket in your local railway station shopping centre's a Migros, you're out of luck as far as getting a bottle of wine to go with your dinner is concerned. However, shops selling booze have an interesting habit of popping up next door to every branch of Migros. Funny that, eh?

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